Nick Starr: Planning for growth as bet on the horses pays off

The Business Interview: The National Theatre owes much to a thoroughbred of a play
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The Independent Online

The National Theatre is approaching its 50th birthday in rude health. After shrugging off the recession and the forthcoming government funding cuts, it has drawn up grand plans to expand at home and abroad.

During Nick Starr's nine-year tenure as executive director, overseeing the business side of the UK institution alongside artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner, income has soared along with attendances.

Now the executive team is planning the next stage of the National's growth, which is underpinned by a surprise hit based on a children's book about a Devon lad and his horse in the First World War.

"War Horse is completely unprecedented," Mr Starr said. "The scale of it and the potential are off the charts. We are fortunate enough to be able to plan optimistically and expand our operations because of the income that has come from it."

The play, which is realised with extraordinary wooden puppets, took London by storm in 2007. It has an open-ended run in the New London Theatre on Drury Lane with receipts going to the National. That success translated to New York this year, where it has grossed $885,000 a week and been nominated for five Tony Awards.

The National will open a touring production in Los Angeles next month before taking it to Canada and Japan and potentially beyond.

War Horse has changed the National's operating methods and will potentially have a wider impact on the industry, Mr Starr said: "There are a lot of standard practices that the play will cause to change."

War Horse brought in 20 per cent of the National's income in the 2010/11 financial year, at a whisker under £14m. This was in addition to the £20m generated by other productions at the theatre, while activities including catering, programme sales and costume hire brought in £10m. With corporate funding and Arts Council grants, income for the year was just under £70m. As a not-for-profit business, what is not spent on production and ancillary costs is also used to develop its operations.

The government spending cuts have not left the National's executives gloomy. "They are not as bad as we had expected. There has been a lot of problem-solving and a 'can do' attitude," Mr Starr said.

Theatre in Britain at large is thriving, with more than 14 million attendances last year, and the relationship between subsidised and commercial theatre is seamless, Mr Starr said. Yet he added there were "oddities" about commercial theatre. "Many of its practices are quaint and old-fashioned and stem from it being, in some ways, an uncompetitive industry, because its power base is locked up in ownership of buildings."

While talk of creating a National Theatre in the UK can be traced back 150 years, the first actual performance by the National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier came in 1963 with a performance of Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole.

The institution is now synonymous with the concrete edifice that sits close to Waterloo Bridge on London's South Bank, though it did not actually move in until 1976. "The National is so completely associated with its concrete. The great dream was to construct the perfect conditions to make theatre," Mr Starr said. The brutalist-style architecture designed by Denys Lasdun received its fair share of opprobrium over the years. Mr Starr said: "It was seen as too concrete, too locked, too formed, too distant, too unwelcoming, too sure of itself, insufficiently engaging with its riverside location." Yet Mr Starr said he was of the generation that found it "thrilling" that it was being built. His love of theatre stretches back to school, fondly remembering directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the lower-sixth. After university, he volunteered at the Half Moon Theatre during the summer holidays of his teaching job. He quickly wound up at the National's press office before moving up to become the head of planning.

After leaving to run an arts centre in the Midlands, he joined London's Almeida Theatre as executive director. He moved back to the National to take the equivalent role in 2002. While Sir Nicholas chooses the plays "and carries the can", Mr Starr concentrates on commercial opportunities and running the business.

"Once I took over, the major theme was to say this is an institution that basically works really well, but to make it work happily and productively is to make it work as hard as possible and perform to many more people than we used to," he said. The most important commercial decision in the theatre's recent history was its tie-up with Travelex in 2003, an idea dreamt up by Sir Nicholas, who joined that year.

The resulting £10 tickets for almost half the seats on a range of productions allowed the theatre to risk new plays and untried directors on the Olivier stage, the largest of its three. The directors were given smaller budgets, making "necessity the mother of invention", Mr Starr said. "But people took to it." The Travelex deal is still running eight years on at a slightly increased £12 each and has been crucial in encouraging audience capacity to more than 90 per cent.

The National is not just reaching new audiences by taking productions abroad but with the launch of NT Live it is broadcasting plays to cinemas in the UK and around the world. Last year, productions including Frankenstein were viewed by 360,000 people and the operation will be self-sustaining this year. There is also a £70m overhaul of the theatre under way in a project dubbed NT Future. This will update facilities and remodel some of the buildings, including opening another bar and an education centre. The drive should be finished in 2015.

The group also has a research-and-development arm costing £1m a year that aims to find the next War Horse, and where the current production London Road was honed.

Mr Starr said he did not want to sound hubristic, but the idea was "to make the building on the South Bank the headquarters of a global operation. To expand through serious good fortune like War Horse and deliberate restlessness about pushing to reach as many people as possible."

Nick Starr CV

* After attending Oxford University, becomes a teacher and volunteers at the Half Moon Theatre

* Joins National Theatre press office in 1987 and is appointed head of planning four years later

* Joins Warwick Arts Centre as director in 1996, and becomes executive director of the Almeida Theatre the next year. Leaves to run a production company

* Appointed executive director of the National Theatre in 2002


Enjoys gardening and playing the piano in his spare time. His favourite recent production was Jerusalem – "one of the best plays I've seen for a long time".